A small drama in one act

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A cup of tea, a window seat,
An afternoon dialogue.

The scene opens on a sparse set,
My gaze left behind in rapt posture.
Words like moving pictures pass me;
I play myself in tragedy.

Are you all alone where you are

Longing gently touches him.
If I’m not here
where am I?
If I’m not me
who am I?

 

Vancouver, 1991

Text and artwork ©Lena Tan 1991/2016

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Plum Blossoms

The sky is light gray, there is a dampness on the road, a bit of wind but no rain – it is just such a day and the wild plum in the backyard is almost in bloom.

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Li Qingzhao: Song to the tune of “Pusaman”

Translation and artwork: Lena Tan, 2006

Li Qingzhao (c.1083-aft.1149) was the daughter of a respected scholar and official in Song dynasty China. Her husband was often traveling on official business, perhaps accounting for the recurrent theme of aloneness in her poetry, although the loneliness of women was a common subject for this form of poetry written to the tunes of popular songs. In 1126, the Song capital fell to northern invaders and the court retreated southward to establish a new capital in Hangzhou. Li’s husband died at this time and she was left on her own to relocate her household.

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Dreaming at the sun’s edge

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Li Bai “The Traveller’s Road is Hard”

Translation and artwork: Lena Tan, 2003

Li Bai was born in Central Asia to a family outside the Tang artistocracy. He created a
rebel persona by exaggerating his eccentricities and writing a flamboyant poetry that has been called “strangeness on top of strangeness.” He was never accepted by his contemporaries in the capital, though his prodigious talent got him an appointment in the emperor’s court, from which he was eventually dismissed for frequent transgressions on the social conventions.

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The year at dusk

 

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Du Fu “Night in a Pavilion”

Translation and artwork: Lena Tan, 2003

Du Fu

(712-770, Tang Dynasty)

Du Fu came from a family of distinguished scholars and officials. In his youth, he showed a talent for poetry and calligraphy. All his life he longed to serve his emperor and country but failed to secure a stable role in officialdom, which consigned his family to a life of relative poverty. He observed the extravagance of the emperor’s court, the suffering of the people, and the ravages of war, and wrote about that in his poetry.

Du Fu is an acknowledged virtuoso in technique and language, master of the perfect couplet while innovative in style and content. Another Tang poet, Yuan Zhen, inscribed on Du Fu’s tomb: “Since there have been poets, there has never been Du Fu’s equal.”

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White clouds without end

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Wang Wei, “A Parting”

Translation and artwork: Lena Tan, 2003

Wang Wei

(701-761, Tang Dynasty)

Born into an established family, Wang Wei enjoyed a position in high society, serving successfully in government. He was well-schooled in poetry, calligraphy, music and painting, and was sophisticated and innovative in his art. He became a devout Buddhist and wrote meditative poems of great simplicity and understatement. Yet his work reflected an ongoing discord between his sense of public responsibility and a private desire for renunciation.

 

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At Maple Bridge we moored for the night

楓橋

moon setscrows cawfrost fills the sky

river maplesfishermen's firesfacing sorrow, I sleep

Gusu townoutside its wallsCold Mountain Temple

at midnightthe bell's soundreaches the traveller's boat

This poem by Zhang Ji (張繼 c.800, Tang Dynasty) is a seven-character quatrain, consisting of two pairs of parallel couplets. It has long been regarded as a masterpiece in that genre.

Gusu, now part of the modern city of Suzhou, was the capital  of the ancient state of Wu in southern China.

Around 500 BCE, the states of Wu and Yue contended for supremacy. According to the legend, the King of Yue presented the King of Wu with the beautiful Xi Shi. The King of Wu was so beguiled with her that he was unprepared when the King of Yue attacked and defeated him. Part of the melancholy of the poem is the evocation of the well-known legend in the name of the old city.

The first Cold Mountain (Hanshan) Temple was built in the Liang Dynasty (502-557).

These ATCs have been traded but are available as 4″ x 6″ prints.

To the Mid-Autumn Moon

Chang-E in her moon palace; Mid-autumn festival 2003

Chang-E in her moon palace; mid-autumn festival 2003

 

Mid-autumn festival, sipping osmanthus tea and nibbling on lotus mooncake.

The Song poet Li Qingzhao 李清照 (c.1083-aft.1149) posed a riddle:

Naturally, it ranks first among flowers.
The plum surely is jealous,
The chrysanthemum should be ashamed;
It opens by the painted railing, capping the mid-autumn.




(from “Partridge Sky” 鷓鴣天, 暗淡)

Another Song poet Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101) raised his wine cup, and, thinking of his brother far away, sang to the full moon:

We can only hope to live long,
And across a thousand li, together cling to its beauty.


嬋娟

(from “Prelude to the Water Melody” 調頭, 有, written in 1076 )

Translations by Lena Tan

Recent forays beyond the walls: The Four Horsemen Project

The Four Horsemen Project by Volcano Theatre of Toronto is a madcap romp based on the sound poetry of Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery and bpNichol. Words degraded into sounds and sounds imbued with meaning, mitigated by the physicality of dance and facial expressiveness of the actors, made for a satisfying and educational experience. At last I understand bpNichol.